It’s hard to believe Death Is This Communion is a decade old this year. High on Fire have quite a few great albums in their discography, and while I got into them some time after Blessed Black Wings came out, it was Death Is This Communion that really cemented my love for the band and their style of riffy, trippy stoner metal. Teaming up with producer Jack Endino lends the album a clearer sound than previous efforts without sacrificing any of the grit or tonal qualities that the band were known for.
Death Is This Communion is absolutely full of incredible songs that, as the kids say, “go hard”.
Second track “Waste of Tiamat,” for example, opens with a strummed clean guitar line showing off Matt Pike’s unique 9 string guitar, which melds with the heavier, distorted chords to explode into the main body of the song, backing Matt’s instantly recognizable vocals. Every song on Death Is This Communion has its own unique sound and character, usually starting off with a signature riff that’s unmistakable. Which brings us to “Turk.”
“Turk” is one of High on Fire’s most instantly recognizable and furious songs, combining all the elements the band are known for into a single song. The opening guitar riff over Des Kensel’s rolling drum fills couldn’t be mistaken for any other song by any other band. Kensel’s drumming on this album is of particular note, calling to mind a slightly more restrained version of Brann Dailor’s ridiculously fill-heavy performance on Mastodon’s Blood Mountain. He knows when to go full blast, and also when to scale things back and support the guitars and vocals. His performance on this album, and especially on songs like “Turk” and “Rumors of War,” were one of the first times that I, as a guitarist learning to appreciate extreme metal when this album first came out, specifically payed attention to a drummer over the other elements of a song. His performance is just that strong.
“Rumors of War” is, of course, the lead single and most straightforward song on the album. That’s by no means a bad thing, of course, as High on Fire know how to write a straightforward, catchy stoner metal song like few others. Even so, they mess with the formula a bit on this track as well, the second half of the song leading into the instrumental track “DII,” where the fury subsides a bit and the melodic riffing takes center stage, along with the fantastic guitar solo, are a bit unexpected given how the track starts, but certainly not unwelcome.
On the other end of the spectrum we have “Ethereal,” the most psychedelic and weird track on the album. Featuring an ascending, hypnotic riff and a real earworm of a chorus, “Ethereal” is High on Fire at their most creative, interesting and, I would say, best. They’d continue to explore songs in this style on later albums, but none have really been quite as good as this one. It’s both well written and technically complicated while also being catchy and fun all the way through, though perhaps not as heavy as the rest of the album.
Death Is This Communion was a hugely influential album to me both in terms of musical taste and songwriting, helping me to appreciate a genre that I had previously had little exposure to, and was decidedly less melodic and “clean” than the melodic death metal and epic doom I’d been listening to at the time. It’s a masterpiece of the stoner metal genre, and that it holds up so well a decade on is a testament to both the songwriting skill of the band and their influence on the genre as a whole. High on Fire have a lot of good albums (I’d go so far as to say they don’t have any bad ones) but none of them are as consistently excellent as Death Is This Communion. Sit back, revisit a classic, and let the riff overwhelm you.